Archive | Psychology

Bias in the Northern District of Georgia?

On Sunday, the Atlanta Journal of Constitution published a front-page story: Workers Who Cry Foul Seldom Get a Day in Court. The story focuses on an empirical study on summary dismissal of employment discrimination claims brought in the Northern District of Georgia in 2011 and 2012. That study reveals that it is “nearly impossible to get trial in an employment discrimination case” in the Northern District of Georgia. [The study was commissioned by the law firm of Barrett and Farahany in Atlanta, GA, and authored by Tanya McAdams and Amanda Farahany (full disclosure: my sister)]. The Northern District of Georgia (and Atlanta, in particular) appears to be an outlier, in that “70 percent of cases brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are dismissed before trial [nationwide],” while in the Northern District of Georgia, “judges toss more than 80 percent of all cases.” In Atlanta, they toss 94% of employment discrimination claims. In 2011 and 2012, 100% percent of racial harassment cases and all but one sexual harassment case were dismissed. By comparison, when the firm compared the results from the Northern District of Alabama (also within the 11th Circuit, and also a state with no state laws concerning employment discrimination (like Georgia)), they found that 66% instead of 80% of employment discrimination claims were dismissed in full.

How should we interpret these results? Could the Northern District of Georgia be facing far more frivolous suits than other jurisdictions? Perhaps, although it’s hard to believe that’s a complete answer. I, for one, would like to know how these results compare to summary dismissal of other types of claims in the same jurisdiction. Assuming that the rate of summary dismissal for employment discrimination claims differs from dismissal of other civil claims, should we infer some [...]

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Even Mathematically Literate People Become Innumerate when they Focus on Political Issues

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum and Chris Mooney have interesting posts discussing a new paper by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his coauthors, which finds that even people who are generally good at interpreting statistics act as if they are innumerate when faced with data that goes against their political views.

Mooney summarizes the results as follows:

The study…. has an ingenious design. At the outset, 1,111 study participants were asked about their political views and also asked a series of questions designed to gauge their “numeracy,” that is, their mathematical reasoning ability. Participants were then asked to solve a fairly difficult problem that involved interpreting the results of a (fake) scientific study. But here was the trick: While the fake study data that they were supposed to assess remained the same, sometimes the study was described as measuring the effectiveness of a “new cream for treating skin rashes.” But in other cases, the study was described as involving the effectiveness of “a law banning private citizens from carrying concealed handguns in public.”

The result? Survey respondents performed wildly differently on what was in essence the same basic problem, simply depending upon whether they had been told that it involved guns or whether they had been told that it involved a new skin cream….

[H]ow did people fare on the handgun version of the problem? They performed quite differently than on the skin cream version, and strong political patterns emerged in the results—especially among people who are good at mathematical reasoning. Most strikingly, highly numerate liberal Democrats did almost perfectly when the right answer was that the concealed weapons ban does indeed work to decrease crime (version C of the experiment)—an outcome that favors their pro-gun-control predilections. But they did much worse when the correct answer was that crime

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Andy Koppelman wonders: Are people who disagree with him just stupid, or are are they insane?

For over the two years, the very intelligent and clever professors at Balkinization have been doing a great job up trying to come up with legal arguments in support of the health control law. Even people who were not persuaded by the arguments can see how they have contributed to the debate. The first item I wrote on the health control law was back on March 22, 2010, responding to an article by Jack Balkin in the New England Journal of Medicine regarding the tax power. (Incidentally, this may make me the second VC writer–very distantly second after Randy himself–to state in writing that the health control law is unconstitutional under modern law, not just under original meaning. )

My Independence Institute colleague Rob Natelson (U. Montana law school) first wrote on the constitutionality of the health control law on Jan. 23, 2010, responding to a Los Angeles Times essay by Akhil Amar, who also writes for Balkinization. (Making Natelson the 1st full-time law professor to write something on Barnett’s side of the issue.)

I think that the VC and Balkinization have jointly helped to elevate the constitutional analysis by the courts and by the public, especially when VC and Bk have engaged and addressed each other’s arguments. Both VC and Bk kept right on going last week, with plenty of arguments for the Court made during the period between the end of oral argument on Wednesday and the Court’s conference on Friday.

In the health control law debate, VC and Balkinization have each had one outlier. At VC, our outlier was Orin Kerr, who remains unconvinced by the arguments developed by Randy et al. Orin’s public questions and challenges have helped spur the health control skeptics to refine their arguments, and to state them more precisely and clearly.

Balkinization [...]

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What if Liberals and Libertarians Agreed on Empirical Questions?

At the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, libertarian lawprof Fernando Teson writes that “The remarkable truth of this conversation between bleeding heart libertarians and progressives is that our disagreement is exclusively empirical. If we all agree that political institutions should be arranged to alleviate poverty, then the only remaining question is which policies actually do this. Why is it then that we cannot agree, or at least converge, by just looking at reliable data, studies, and empirical theories?”

Fernando suggests that disagreement between liberals and libertarians would largely disappear if the two sides could agree on empirical facts. I think there is a lot of truth to this, but it’s not the whole truth. Agreement on empirics would greatly narrow the range of disagreement between libertarians and liberals, but some important differences would remain.

As I explained in this post, some libertarians are actually utilitarians: they support libertarianism purely because they believe that libertarian policies maximize happiness. Some liberals are utilitarians as well. If a utilitarian liberal and a utilitarian libertarian came to a consensus on empirical issues, they could also come to agreement on policy as well. The only thing that separates them is a disagreement over how best to achieve a common goal: maximizing happiness (I set aside, for the moment, the fact that there are different schools of utilitarianism that disagree over the definition of happiness).

Most libertarians and most liberals are not pure utilitarians. Similarly, few if any care only about alleviating poverty, the issue Fernando focuses on in his post. Here are some issues that would continue to divide libertarians and liberals who aren’t pure utilitarians even if they overcame their empirical disagreements:

I. Economic Liberties.

Most libertarians assign at least some intrinsic value to economic freedom over and above its instrumental benefits. Thus, they [...]

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Paternalistic versus Therapeutic?

I finally had a chance to read the Cato Unbound symposium that Todd Z mentioned below.  It’s well worth the read.

I should add to my earlier post on this that I am not, as it happens, hostile to the pursuit of behavioral economics; far from it.  But I do share some of the skepticism about how it goes about the intellectual enterprise – for example, the way in which concepts in moral psychology that I would regard as unavoidably “deep,” such as trust, get operationalized, in order to fit into a certain form of testable experimental design, into concepts that are much flatter and on the surface, such as “confidence,” to quote a recent conversation with a psychologist friend in the field.

Indeed, as I’ve occasionally observed here at VC, if rationalist economics and behavioral economics are in some sense at odds and competing, or at least complementary, in another sense, they are much more deeply linked.  They are linked in being “surface” theories of human nature.  Neither of them embraces a deep view of human psychology or human nature – they are each minimalist and reductive, each in its own way.

There are contrasting approaches in economics that do embrace deeper views of people, more precisely, more “committed” views of human psychology.  One category would be institutional economics insofar as it embraces one or another form of sociological theory of institutions.  A theory of institutions that matters to economics, however, in a social sense will almost always be one that concerns legitimacy.

The other category would be theories of value based around deep commitments about human nature – moral psychology – and the defining work would be the Theory of Moral Sentiments.  But all that stuff that Akerloff and Schiller and other people today want to say about [...]

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Cities in Flight

Instead of a Stendhal post this week – I missed Saturday lost in the DC snow – and further to my Foundation post below, which has garnered some very interesting comments … do we have any fans of James Blish’s Cities in Flight novels?

As an exercise in future history social theory, I actually think they are deeper than the Foundation novels; certainly I found the characters more psychologically interesting and in many respects, the interplay of society with ideas from science deeper, too.  I used to think – and say below – that they are emotionally rather bleak, pessimistic.  I think today I would say it is not so much pessimism as a very adult sensibility of mortality.  The original Foundation series is aimed at cleverness in holding out on the ending; Blish was a surprisingly psychological writer, particularly for that era in science fiction.

Here is what I wrote about the series on a family blog in 2005, reading them with my daughter: [...]

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“The New Foundation”

Peggy Noonan notes in her weekend column that President Obama’s SOTU address worked in a name for the new program – in the tradition of the “New Deal” or Kennedy’s “New Frontier.  For the Obama administration, it is the New Foundation.  She is skeptical:

They’ve chosen a phrase for the president’s program. They call it the “New Foundation.” They sneaked it in rather tentatively, probably not sure it would take off. It won’t. Such labels work when they clearly capture something that is already clear. “The New Deal” captured FDR’s historic shift to an increased governmental presence in individual American lives. It was a new deal. “The New Frontier”—we are a young and vibrant nation still, and adventures await us in space and elsewhere. It was a mood, not a program, but a mood well captured.

“The New Foundation” is solid and workmanlike, but it attempts to put form and order to a governing philosophy that is still too herky-jerky to be summed up.

I am equally skeptical, but my interest here is a different one.  We here at Volokh Conspiracy tend to be well aware of the Foundation novels – only too aware, possibly.  But I recall reading here or somewhere that Paul Krugman and several other leading economic and legal academic-policymakers had come to their professions wanting to be … Hari Seldon.  Deeply attracted to the idea of a mathematically-based psychohistory.  Certainly includes me.  I am the son of a physical scientist; I spent my early years playing with dangerous chemicals in my father’s lab.  But from the time I read the Foundation books, I was lost to physical sciences – I wanted the vision of a science of mass behavior.

This is not a liberal versus conservative thing although, it bears noting, nothing about Asimov’s Foundation [...]

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The Psychology of a Terrorist

There seems to be a strange subtext in some press stories hinting that the suspect in the Fort Hood shootings, Nidal Malik Hasan, had psychological problems or motivations of a kind that would somehow render his acts inconsistent with terrorism or with Islamic terrorism. Does the press realize that the psychological profile of a typical suicide bomber or religious mass murderer is hardly one of complete normality?

The scholarship on the psychological makeup of terrorists is somewhat spotty, but in his 2005 Journal of Conflict Resolution article reviewing the literature, Jeff Victoroff identifies the following four characteristics in “typical” terrorists:

a. High affective valence regarding an ideological issue

[here Islam, jihad, or the Iraqi or Afghan Wars]

b. A personal stake—such as strongly perceived oppression, humiliation, or persecution; an extraordinary need for identity, glory, or vengeance; or a drive for expression of intrinsic aggressivity—that distinguishes him or her from the vast majority of those who fulfill characteristic a

[here probably strongly perceived oppression, humiliation, or persecution]

c. Low cognitive flexibility, low tolerance for ambiguity, and elevated tendency toward attribution error

[here there is alleged rigidity in personal relations consistent with low cognitive flexibility and low tolerance for ambiguity; we do not yet know if there was attribution error, such as unreasonably blaming Americans or Jews]

d. A capacity to suppress both instinctive and learned moral constraints against harming innocents, whether due to intrinsic or acquired factors, individual or group forces—probably influenced by a, b, and c.

[here we have not only Hasan’s actions as evidence, but also his words and the words of some of his friends]

Jeff Victoroff, “The Mind of the Terrorist: A Review and Critique of Psychological Approaches,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 49: 3-42, 35 (Feb.

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